See also The best 2011 reds made anywhere.
Perhaps it's not great timing that traditionally vintage port has been declared on St George's Day, 23 April. This year anyway the launch of the 2011 vintage ports has come slap bang in the middle of the 2012 bordeaux primeurs season. But anyone with an interest in superbly made top-quality red wine worth ageing for decades should arguably turn their backs on Bordeaux 2012 and look instead at Port 2011.
There is little doubt that 2011 produced some stunning vintage ports, into which more effort and skill has gone than any other previous vintage in the Douro. And I find it impossible to think of any other wine region, anywhere in the world, that produced better wines. (Funnily enough the only other wines I would also recommend for laying down for a baby born in 2011 are also sweet: Sauternes and botrytised wines from Germany.)
The two big exporting shippers, the Symington group and The Fladgate Partnership, really pulled out the stops to produce the finest wines they possibly could in 2011. (See more about the growing season and its exceptional qualities in The best 2011 reds anywhere.) There is a doctrinal difference between these two rivals. Foot treading is still widely used by TFP and is seen as a crucial ingredient in their top wines - Taylor and Fonseca. Foot treading is also part of the creed at Quinta do Noval, whose final blends for 2011 were made only yesterday because director Christian Seely has been so busy with AXA Millésimes' other properties in Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Meanwhile this is Paul Symington's response to a question about this expensive traditional technique when he presented the 2011s at a tasting in London last week: 'For the first time in 2011 all our wines were made in lagares [the shallow fermentation vats that are characteristic of the Douro] but by a mixture of foot treading and some robotic lagares which we have had since 98. We don't make any distinction between those two techniques. I can tell you that having 40 people treading in a lagar every night for five weeks is not a proposition unless you're Bill Gates. This is the first vintage since 1963 that we've gone back to 100% lagares and used no autovinification.'
I don't know whether foot treading was the key, or winemaker David Guimaerens' skill, or the natural superiority of the vineyards in question, but I was blown away by the quality of the top three wines from The Fladgate Partnership. The limited edition Taylor, Vargellas Vinha Velha is particularly stunning - almost more like a hugely complex table wine than a port - but only 310 cases of 12 bottles were filled. On the other hand, quantities produced of the regular Taylor vintage port and Fonseca are relatively generous: 11,000 and 6,000 respectively. (A typical Bordeaux first growth will produce at least 10 times this amount of their grand vin.)
The Symingtons have been more cautious in the quantity of vintage port they declared in 2011: a total of only 4,780 12-bottle cases of Graham 2011 were made. In practice, the wines, many of them currently being bottled, are likely to be offered in six-bottle cases. We have given recommended retail prices per bottle as supplied by TFP and the Symingtons (who did not mention their minor label Quarles Harris, which has presumably been pensioned off).
The current trend is to develop special cuvées of the top names. With the last vintage declared, 2007, the Symingtons introduced a special Capela bottling from their Quinta do Vesuvio. In 2011 only 200 cases were made and, for the first time, a little Alicante Bouschet was included in a vintage port as well as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and the Symingtons' beloved Sousão. It's a gorgeous wine - but is priced at a premium over the also delicious Quinta do Vesuvio, the only single-quinta vintage port that the Syms are producing in 2011 - and probably the best value vintage port of all.
This is nothing, however, next to the premium demanded for Taylor, Vargellas Vinha Velha, which will be selling at a cool £150 a bottle. If this is what it takes to have the fine-wine market take notice of how great vintage port can be, and is in 2011, so be it.
The following 31 vintage port 2011s were tasted as cask samples in London, most of them at the admirable Big Fortified Tasting. Its fourth edition last week was better attended than ever - and was delightfully convenient for Southwark Crown Court and its jurors. Wines are listed in alphabetical order by producer and should be available from a wide range of traditional wine merchants.
Extraordinarily dark blueish purple. Hint of cheesiness but very direct and ambitious. Rather different from most. Every ounce wrung out of it for drama but a little bit lacking real bottom. Good effort! Finishes a bit suddenly.
Very dark purple. Sample a little tired on the nose. Awkward mismatch between the high acidity and high sugar. Not quite enough substance to marry the two. Dramatic but not that admirable. Sour finish.
Very scented and refined. Treacle and liquorice the top notes and real rigour. Absolutely classic 'Brit style' vintage port. Sort of the Léoville Barton of the Douro? Not the most generous arguably but very straight backed. Dry and almost austere.
I tasted this in Porto last September. Beefy nose again. And then massively sweet and intense. Noble structure and really quite dry on the finish. Tense finish after a very broad spread on the start. Balsamic notes.
£43 RRP 18.5
Not one of the deepest colours. Rather smudgy, indistinct nose. Something a bit vegy/herby about this wine. More open than most. Almost as though it is made to sit under the Fonseca and Taylor from this stable. Agreeable but not the most ambitious. Slightly sudden dry finish. Just a tad spindly.
£48 RRP 17
A bit smudgy but comforting mug-of-cocoa stuff. A little skinny.
Tobacco nose and then the most extraordinary texture. So voluptuous and I could love it tonight! So appetising and beautifully balanced. Long. So complete. Tea leaves. So exciting. Such intensity than the tannins are barely perceptible. Lip smacking.
£51 RRP 18.5
Lots of blueish purple. Very sweet and rich. Really plays the ripeness and sweetness card! Massive impact in the mouth and then tightens up to be a little dry and minerally on the finish. An exciting wine in a very distinctive style. Very dry finish at present.
Heady, opulent nose. Completely enveloping, Smells as though there is going to be the most fabulous texture. Wow! All stops pulled out for this one. It's all absolutely gorgeous intensity of sweet fruit on the front palate and then gradually the schist and structure reveal themselves. This is really wonderful stuff. So tempting to sip it decades before it is ready.
£60 RRP 19.5
Just 250 cases. They may make it every year! Pricing it way above Graham – ‘£110 a bottle so dirt cheap compared to bordeaux. We've always loved these two little vineyards.’ Picked 21 September and fermented together. Port Arthur faces east and another facing north.
Very atypical. Very big and ripe and beefy – sort of Bovril nose. Then sweeter and softer than the Graham vintage on the palate. Not heavy. Minerally and racy. Distinctive.
£100 RRP 18.5
They say they have worked very hard to avoid mouthpuckering tannins. Managed quite differently even though the IPT is as high as it's ever been.
Meaty and concentrated. Really covers the palate – full width. Seems drier than most of the components on the finish but thoroughly exciting and complete. Spicy and noble. Minerally finish.
£53 RRP 19
Dark purple. Sample seems a little stale on the nose. Sweet and a bit simple and chunky and awkward.
The same colour as the regular vintage. Much more restrained on the nose than the regular Niepoort vintage. But amazing class. Sucky stones and not that sweet. SO mineral and individual.
Very intense blackish purple. Fantastic breadth and richness. Putty, opulent and so rich! Much sweeter and juicier than the Bioma. Very lifted and dry on the end but only after the most amazing fresh fruit. Racy and sinewy. Racehorse. Fab. Palate scrub on the end.
Exceptionally deep colour. Pruney nose – quite forward and luscious. A bit less concentration than some, although the structure pokes through in a slightly angular way. Hot finish.
Blackish purple. Dense and brûlée and rich and providing lots of fun and richness. Much earlier maturing than most but with lots of character and pleasure – no sacrifice of quality. Not that intense but very well meaning. Slightly inky finish.
Dark purple. A little cheesiness on the nose. Lots of sweetness – sweet liquorice is the dominant flavour. Extremely sweet. Then both dry and alcoholic on the finish. So liquorice…! Just a bit simple.
Mid to dark crimson. Fragrant, almost rose petal aromas. It came as no surprise to read that Touriga Nacional comprises 80% of this wine. Pure, wild and lifted - this is not one of the most concentrated 2011 vintage ports but it is very charming. Sweet at the beginning and quite dry on the finish. Delightful freshness. This is a wine I pcould do imagine sipping in the Douro, less so in the clubs of St James's.
Dark purplish crimson. Quite a claret-like build for a port. Dense and racy and wonderfully intense and compact. Very fine, firm tannins and dry rather than voluptuous on the finish. Intense, tense fruit. Dried herb flavours. But not a hint of dried fruit or raisins. Very sinewy and lively. Nothing remotely heavy about this. Really exciting wine.
This is the first time Noval have declared their famous Nacional since 2003 so this is an exciting development. Very dark purple stains the inside of the glass. Gosh, a massive bruiser of a wine. There is such concentration here that not much aroma can escape initially. Wild, peppery stuff. Then wonderfully juicy and spicy. This is like the ultimate biodynamic wine with lots of microbiology going on, in a good way. Very clean and fresh on the finish. Not notably sweet and with more marked acidity than some. A big contrast to, for example, Fonseca 2011. This is all about subtle topnotes rather than broad lusciousness. So vital!
Dark purple but paler than many. So raw! A little severe and tough. Much lighter and more austere than the Symington 2011s. Wait for ages! Grainy.
Very dark. Like the sample of Smith Woodhouse, it is far from the freshest on the nose but has admirable vitality on the palate. Very confident and rich. Love the sweet start and the dry finish. Sparkling!
£36 RRP 17.5
Very dark and luminous. Smells of hot, dried undergrowth with that slightly currified nose. Lots of zip and richness. One of the earlier maturing ones but with no shortage of personality. Palate-scrubbing finish. Very honest.
Spicy and very sweet. Chewy and dry on the end. Racy and without that much flesh. Not one of the sweetest but quite fine.
Very bright purple. Very flattering, rather 'smudgy', comfortable and comforting nose. Sinewy underneath and the structure and schist soon asserts itself above the undoubted fruit. Exciting stuff. Clearly a lot of effort has gone into this. A long-term prospect but flashy enough to enjoy relatively young.
Blackish purple. Nose wasn't very fresh even though there was masses of flattering, rose-scented ripe fruit on the palate. Attractive medium-term port but not as luscious as the other wines from this Symington stable.
£36 RRP 17
Actually not as deep purple as some. More deep crimson. Complex and wild nose, sort of biodynamic kind of profile. There's something burgundian and devil-may-care about this wine. It's lovely for drinking already. How on earth are they going to persuade people to hang on to it?? The sort of singer who doesn't obey any rules; just belts it out and doesn’t mind whether the orchestra keeps up or not. Transparent and very distinctive. I'm tempted to give a crazy drinking window…
£150 RRP 19.5
This wine was placed immediately after the super-opulent Fonseca in the BFT tasting which may have been a mistake. This is restrained. Well mannered, discreet, keeps its powder very dry. But on the palate it opens out in the most superb, burgundian peacock's tail sort of way. Another wonderful wine from The Fladgate Partnership. Utterly different from the Fonseca. Upright and straight backed. But irreproachable. My gums are virtually impervious to sugar and acid but this wine set them vibrating a bit. Dried prunes ground up with rocks.
£60 RRP 19.5
Smudgy nose. Muscular and very rich, sweet palate. Just a bit more forward than the greatest but a good effort. Bit dry on the finish.
Blackish purple. Very scented. Dry and aromatic. Luscious and broad. Well up to standard for the vintage. Maybe not as intense as the very best. But commendable in a liquorice sort of way. Beautifully made.
Very dark indeed. Hugely intense. Vibrates with excitement. Wild! Finishes dry and racy and sinewy. Muscular. Really very fine indeed. needs lots of time and a bit more obviously 'made' but very impressive indeed. Scrubs the palate. Very exciting.
£67 RRP 19
Treacle and firm on the nose – so noble! Rich and sweet and flattering on the palate. Gosh this is gorgeous. It may open a little bit before some of the others but it's just classic. So beautifully made.
£49 RRP 18.5
Just 3,000 cases of this. More than half the wine is from Cavadinha which is quite high. Plus fruit for very far east.
More open, much looser and more obviously spicy than Graham. Rich and broad and chocolate wrapped prunes. Lots of fun and appeal. Finishes dry.
£45 RRP 18
Very deep, luminous purple. Scented and floral – surely has quite a high Touriga Nacional component? Very neat. Almost more like fortified table wine than a port. Refined but a teensy bit timid.